The Pirates of Penzance – Wilton’s Music Hall, London

Book and Lyrics: W.S. Gilbert

Composer: Arthur Sullivan

Director: Sasha Regan

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Is there anything more British than Gilbert and Sullivan? At a time when our country is facing one of the biggest political divides of the modern era, it’s comforting to know that somewhere, deep down, we are still the same group of slightly eccentric buffoons that we were in 1871 when Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance was first performed. As our identity crisis threatens to overwhelm us entirely, Sasha Regan’s production returns to Wilton’s Music Hall to remind us that whatever happens next, there are still dancing pirates.

First performed in 2009, frequently revived and internationally toured this production has considerable pedigree, but it has also lived through rather momentous theatre times. To say it’s no longer fashionable or acceptable to turn out a full white male cast is an understatement, and while some ethnic diversity would help, the utter joy of this version of The Pirates of Penzance and its timeless evocation of British humour allows you to slightly overlook its non-PC credentials.

Sold as a pirate-apprentice at the age of 8, Frederick’s impending 21stbirthday will secure his freedom, whereupon he has vows to bring good-hearted damnation on the dastardly pirates. Bereft of a woman’s love, he soon falls for the coquettish charm of Mabel whose Major General father lies to the Pirate King to retain his other daughters. As a showdown looms, Frederick realises his longed-for freedom may be hard-won.

Regan’s production is a comic delight from start to finish, a show in which the principals get to sing all the good songs, play with tender moments of pathos and show-off their comic timing, while behind their backs, the wonderful ensemble outright steals the show. Choreographer Lizzie Gee has filled every moment with amusing eye-catching incidents and daffy vignettes, so whether the group are playing rambunctious pirates, simpering maidens or terrified policeman, their collective performance is entertaining and hilarious.

The arrival of the ladies is one of the show’s best moments as their hanky-waving delicacy becomes predatory desperation when they discover Frederick alone. Often Gee, arranges the performers around the soloist, having them bounce along to the rhythm or move in unison to replicate the sound of the music, while Regan makes full of use of Wilton’s two-tiered space as actors roam around the circle and stalls area throughout the production. There is also plenty of variety, seamlessly balancing the big numbers including a torch-lit With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal which uses the full space, with the lullaby-quality and intimacy of Hush, hush, not a word which follows.

In designer Robyn Wilson-Owen’s white and tan colour palette these are the most public-school pirates you’ll ever see, but Tom Senior’s Frederick is likeably heroic with a delightful voice that fills the hall, while David McKechnie exactly captures the pomposity of the Major-General while sporting a very fine moustache and whiskers combination. Alan Richardson’s Ruth has the best of the female roles, a transformation from pastured nursemaid to cougar-pirate-vamp which is full of fun, teaming-up with James Thackeray’s dastardly and somewhat sweaty Pirate King. Only Tom Bales as Mabel really struggles for range and volume, the pitch often sounding strained which underpowers the vocals.

Full of great performances, carefully measured physical comedy and well-known songs, there is a love for the source material and style of humour that infects the audience completely. This all-male Pirates of Penzance is great fun and the ideal tonic for a tough day at the office.

Runs until 16 March 2019 then UK Tour | Image: Scott Rylander

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